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Erickson Blakney interviews Mississippi State Senator Robert Jackson. Blakney is a veteran broadcast and print journalist who now works in philanthropy and serves on the board of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. (Video editor: Joel Cohen)

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It was a Sunday Mississippi State Senator Robert Jackson would never forget: On June 28, 2020, state lawmakers voted to bring down the state flag, the last one in the country bearing a Confederate symbol. The 126-year-old design has been a palpable reminder of the state’s racial scars amidst a national reckoning over deep, structural, and systemic inequalities.

“The flag has been an issue for as long as I’ve been living in this state,” Jackson said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “Never did I think that I would have the opportunity to vote in order to get rid of it.”

On the Senate floor, Jackson, overwhelmed with gratitude, hugged  State Senator Briggs Hopson, the Republican from Vicksburg who introduced the flag bill in the Senate. Rogelio V. Solis of the Associated Press snapped a photo, which circulated nationally and wound up on the front page of the New York Times. 

“The picture that was taken at the time that we made that historic vote was a picture of me hugging the white state senator who championed the bill on the floor, Chairman Hopson,” Jackson said. “And I was so overtaken by the situation that I rushed up and gave him a hug.” 

This Associated Press photo of Mississippi State Senator Robert Jackson (D-11th), right, hugging Senator Briggs Hopson (R-23rd) after the vote to remove the symbol of the Confederacy from the state flag appeared in newspapers and online news sites around the the country. (AP Photo / Rogelio V. Solis)

Jackson and 40 other legislators are now recovering from Covid-19 after an outbreak at the state capitol. 

“Some people said that may have been the time that I contracted the virus,” he said. “I don’t know. But I was overwhelmed by the moment and I had to congratulate him.”

Later that day, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill that creates a commission to design a new state flag and bans future use of the Confederate emblem. The flag, still embraced by many Mississippians clinging to their Old South heritage despite the state being 40% Black, must be removed from government buildings within 15 days with the approval of Reeves.

Despite this, Jackson criticized Reeves’ long-held refusal to take a position on the state flag. 

“It’s unfortunate,” Jackson said. “He tries to emulate our president in that he wants to be on both sides of an issue. The flag to me, and for many across this country, was a symbol of hate and a symbol of a time passed that was not good for African-Americans and people who thought it bad for humans to enslave other humans. So, I don’t know how he can champion that kind of past.”

In his interview with the Daily Yonder, Jackson also expressed opposition to Mississippi reopening schools for the fall term because of the state’s surge in Covid-19 cases.

“To require schools to open under situations like this, it’s just nonsensical,” Jackson said. “If I had to make the decision, I wouldn’t require parents to send their kids to that environment.”

As school districts across the country have begun releasing their plans for the school year, taking into account the health risks of in-person classes against the educational limitations of remote learning, Jackson highlighted the risks of even just one person being infected in the classroom. 

“If teachers get infected, the kids get infected,” he said. “They go back home, they infect their families, and we have a worse situation.”

According to recent Daily Yonder analysis, all of Mississippi’s 65 non-metropolitan counties are in the coronavirus “red zone,” according to definitions taken from White House Coronavirus Task Force documents. These counties have more than 100 cases per 100,000 people and are advised to put in place stronger social distancing measures. By the week of July 18 to 25, every county in the state, metropolitan and non-metropolitan, had reached case numbers above this threshold.

Mississippi has had 52,957 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1,501 deaths as of the time of publication.

The Mississippi Department of Education on July 23 released a statement announcing: “All Mississippi school districts will finalize plans for the start of the new school year by month-end.”

School districts can implement one of the three options provided by the Mississippi State Board of Education last month: traditional, virtual, or a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. Most schools that have announced plans for school reopening included an option for parents to opt-in to distance learning. 

“The State Board of Education is sensitive to the fact that local school districts have to contend with tough decisions about how to operate school safely this year,” said Dr. Jason Dean, board chair, in a statement. “Local school boards are the only ones with the legal authority to set the date for starting school. There is no authority given to the State Board of Education to direct school opening plans.”

Parents, teachers, and advocates have appealed to Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves to delay reopening schools. Mississippi Teachers Unite, a newly formed grassroots group of Mississippi teachers, staff, parents, and community members, held a rally at the State Capitol in July, calling on supporters to sign a letter to the governor to delay school reopening “until at least after Labor Day,” among other conditions.

Based on a State of Emergency Proclamation in March, Reeves has the authority to temporarily suspend or modify laws, rules, and policies to cope with the pandemic. This includes having the power to declare school start dates by Executive Order.

Reeve has said he is fully committed to reopening schools safely. He did note that he is less committed to allowing recreational activities.

Jackson said Reeves needs to do a better job in handling the state with the cases of coronavirus spiking. The state senator, following traditional school grading, gave both Reeves and President Trump low marks. 

“The president gets an F and the governor has been trying to do, as the president has called on his Republican-led governors across the country to follow his lead,” he said. “Our governor has broken a little bit in that he’s required folks to wear a mask. So, he gets a D.”

Disclosure: Jackson, in addition to serving in the Mississippi State Senate for 17 years, is also the chief executive officer of the Quitman County Development Organization, which was part of the steering committee for the Rural Assembly. The Rural Assembly is a project of the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies, publisher of the Daily Yonder